(Modern) Which Gifts to “Ungive”?

In an effort to produce diverse content, I want to write more than just primers on Card Knock Life. Presently I plan to write about a different deck every other week or so, unless something so spicy comes up that I have to talk about it. That being said, I want to discuss one of my favorite cards ever: Gifts Ungiven.

Gifts is just an amazing card in so many dimensions. Unfortunately, many Modern players don’t get to see the card’s utility beyond fetching Past in Flames, Manamorphose, Pyretic Ritual, and Desperate Ritual in Baral Storm. Some may remember the pre-Gifts Storm days when the best use for Gifts in Modern was getting Unburial Rites and either Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite or Iona, Shield of Emeria in order to dump both in the graveyard and reanimate the most backbreaking target in the next turn. In this article, I’d like to talk about the Gifts piles that are uncommon in the present meta, and how you should make them or split them depending on whether you are casting a Gifts or are the target of one.

Utility Gifts: the Illusion of Choice

One of Gifts Ungiven’s many uses is to get cards that you need to combat your opponent’s specific strategy. For this reason, many Gifts decks will play one-ofs that would otherwise be questionable. For example, if you are playing an Esper Gifts deck and want to have Gifts be able to give you a board wipe, you might play singleton copies of Supreme Verdict, Wrath of God, and Damnation even if one of these options is the clear best choice for a given metagame. If three or more similar effects do not exist on cards with different names, you can use cards like Snapcaster Mage, Noxious Revival, or Eternal Witness to find redundancy in the effect you seek. 

This concept also influences sideboard construction. For example: if you are playing in a burn-heavy metagame, you might want to think about playing different life gain than just some number of Timely Reinforcements in the sideboard. In some cases, singleton copies of Timely Reinforcements, Rest for the Weary, and Kitchen Finks may provide a necessary diversity of similar effects for your Gifts selection.

Value Gifts: AKA Ancestral Recall

Something that you don’t see often nowadays is someone casting a Gifts Ungiven solely for the purpose of accruing card advantage. I find this notion disheartening as these Gifts piles are some of the hardest to split and offer a great payoff. Snapcaster Mage and Eternal Witness are often the most important cards when it comes to making value piles, but…not always.

I’ll use Esper Gifts as an example once more. Let’s say I’m on the Gifts deck and I’m playing against Grixis Shadow. We’re both at parity with nothing on board. I can make the following pile:

   

What in the world is my opponent supposed to give me? Every card in the pile represents a problem for them. Lingering Souls provides a hard to remove clock and plenty of chump blockers, Path to Exile cleanly deals with any threat that the opponent can play, Gifts Ungiven lets me get even more answers from my deck, and Snapcaster Mage effectively gives me another copy of whatever card in this pile (or that I’ve previously cast) that I need. There’s no good way to split the pile, and I’ll be netting at least two needed cards no matter what I get. I say “at least two” because Snapcaster Mage and Lingering Souls are functionally two cards in one. These are the Gifts piles that you don’t see very often, but are incredibly effective at pulling ahead in many matchups.

Bluffing: Combining Utility and Value

It’s no coincidence that most Gifts decks are playing some sort of combo. Besides having the magical Christmasland scenarios where you can fetch out the combo pieces and win the game, they make for excellent mind games when you are resolving a Gifts.

I’m going to assume that I’m piloting a slightly different Gifts deck in this example: UW Thopter Sword Gifts. In the maindeck, I have the Thopter Foundry/Sword of the Meek combo that is something my opponent must always respect and be aware of. You can use the constant threat of the combo to pressure your opponent into giving you cards that they would otherwise not give you. If I have no intention of comboing off and I just want two very good cards (in this case, we’ll say a Detention Sphere and a Thirst for Knowledge), I can make a pile like so:

 

My opponent must respect the combo, and it would be a huge risk for them to give me Thopter Foundry or Muddle the Mixture if I have the Sword of the Meek in hand or a way to find it. I can use this fear to essentially force my opponent to give me a prime removal spell and card draw to let me grind out advantage. Note that this doesn’t work so well if your opponent doesn’t care about your deck’s combo.  

Splitting Piles

Now that we’ve covered casting Gifts Ungiven, let’s talk about being on the receiving end of one. If you should ever find yourself in this unfortunate situation, there are some general rules you can follow to make life as hard as possible for your opponent:

  1. Choose the most mana-intensive option. In many piles your opponents make, there are choices you can make that result in your opponent reaching a similar end state, but using more mana to do so. You should strongly consider making such choices as this leaves him or her with less mana to counter your answers to whatever they’re doing with Gifts.

  2. Choose the option with the least amount of recursion/value. This mainly applies to value Gifts. If your opponent makes a pile with Snapcaster Mage and a million good cards, giving them the Snapcaster Mage is usually not a good idea. This lets them replicate any instant or sorcery in the pile whether you send it to the graveyard or their hand.  You will want to leave your opponents with the fewest amount of options possible.

  3. Figure out what your opponent needs. Take a bit of time to really think hard about the options that your opponent is presenting you with. Look at your board state and draw inferences about the cards in their hand based off of the way that they have been playing.  Figure out what card they really need for the current situation. If that card is in the Gifts pile, obviously you shouldn’t give it to them. If that card plus recursion are in the pile, follow step 2 and give them as little recursion as possible. If that card is not in the pile, they most likely have it in hand, so take that into account when making your decisions.

Gifts Ungiven is a beast of a card that can be used in tons of different ways, but hopefully this article has given you a better understanding on how to cast Gifts and split piles.

Caden Kreppein is a modern specialist and has been playing the format for roughly three and a half years. Highlights include a 17th place finish at SCG Modern Open in Charlotte with Jeskai Control. Caden has been a judge for almost 2 years now, and is currently pursuing L2 certification.

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